Interview with Jon Stollenmeyer & Kohei Yamamoto

(adapted from The Wooden Post, vol 11, June 2018).

Interview: Jon Stollenmeyer & Kohei Yamamoto as interviewed by Yann Giguère Specialty in traditional Ishibatate style of Japanese carpentry.

Two travelers coming from Japan to share with us their experiences working on traditional buildings with traditional tools and materials. But that is not all they are involved with. There is a growing movement in Japan to push for recognition of the traditional building arts as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (of Humanity). That effort is outlined in the following interview conducted by Yann Giguère. But first, some introductions by way of their bio’s as posted on their website,

Kohei Yamamoto

Kohei Yamamoto

Kohei Yamamoto

While attending trade school specializing in wooden crafts Kohei was introduced to and fell in love with hand tools. He delved deeply into the furniture arts but at the advice of his professor took a job as a Japanese Temple and Shrine carpenter. For 8 years he worked on some of the most famous temples and shrines in Japan including Important Cultural Heritage sites such as the Grand Shrine at Izumo. Seeing and working on buildings like these that had stood the test of time he was interested in why present day homes weren’t considered with as much thought when building. He also fell in love with the mark that carpenters had left using traditional methods of sawing, milling, and finishing in the past.

In 2012 he was given the opportunity to take on a project building a new home in Fukuyama City. He accepted it and built one of the first traditional Ishibatate homes in the area since the end WWII. Finishes included everything from finely planed to adze and axe finishes used in rough milling. This began his company Somacousha. (

Jonathan Stollenmeyer

Jonathan StollenmeyerFrom 2003-2004 Jonathan worked in 2 separate architectural offices through a cooperative study program. Graduating the University of Cincinnati DAAP architecture program in 2005, he immediately traveled to Japan to experience first hand some of the buildings that had moved him in his study at university. With a strong belief that first hand experience is the most important thing to understanding space he began his architectural career by trying to find an apprenticeship in woodworking in the United States. He found himself working at Traditional Boat works in New Hampshire, learning a craft and building from start to finish a traditional Norwegian Snekke. This truly inspired him to want to understand craft. With the collapse of the economy in the US and the world abroad, he took some time to travel again and experience some of the great architects work in Mexico (Luis Barragan) and Switzerland (Peter Zumthor) among others. Coming back to the states he worked freelance in architecture doing large-scale apartments/condominiums in downtown Cincinnati, and wrote a short book about his travels for design friends. In 2007 he moved to a Zen monastery in the woods of Kentucky. For more than a year he spent his days in zazen meditation and working for that community. In late 2008 he left the monastery to travel and see architecture again, this time going to Scandinavia followed by renting space in Argentina for several months. Working odd jobs after returning back to the states he realized that he wanted to be working with his hands and not in an architectural office. In the fall of 2009 he made his way back to Japan to take a course in Japanese and pursue the dream of working with Japanese carpenters in their trade. Through the mentorship and introduction of his tea ceremony teacher he began work with Nakamura Sotoji Komuten in the fall of the following year. This company of carpenters is doing projects within Japan and abroad in the Sukiya (teahouse) style. In 2013, despite his love for the work that Nakamura is doing, he got the opportunity to see Kohei Yamamoto’s work in Okayama Prefecture and the building’s Ishibatate carpentry style astounded him. At the end of his contract with Nakamura he received approval from the firm to leave and study elsewhere. In November of 2013 he began work at Somacousha learning the Ishibatate framing style under the tutelage of Mr. Yamamoto.

Yann Giguère: You guys specialize in a unique style of Japanese carpentry, which used to be very common, but not today called Ishibatate. If you could, describe this style a little bit.

Kohei Yamamoto: A distinct aspect of Ishibatate is that the posts simply rest on stones. No metal fasteners for structural joinery, wood on wood only and no diagonal bracing, only horizontal. All this allows a building to move with earthquakes.

YG: For the walls, is it always wattle and daub? Clay and straw wall on a weave of either wood and split bamboo.

KY: Yes, except where bamboo was not available yoshi, a kind of reed, was used instead. Mostly we use bamboo tied with straw ropes.

Jon Stollenmeyer: In the Ishibatate style, like Yamamoto-san said, the columns are on stones. They’re not fixed to the ground. We call it nukikouzou. Nuki are the wooden pieces that go through the walls horizontally and we bring those through the columns. That’s very important because that way when the column starts to move, it bites into this wooden piece and uses wood’s… in Japanese they call it fukugenryuku tokusei … which means wood has the innate quality of wanting to return to its original shape if the grains are not cut. If the grain is indented, or pressed against, when it encounters water again it goes back to that original shape to a certain extent. So, carpenters in Japan are constantly considering how they can make use of that very special quality in wood. I think as far as wattle and daub is concerned, it’s really a matter of not just earthquakes. It has to do with the climate here. Wattle and daub will absorb moisture when it’s too humid and let moisture into the air when it’s too dry. You have a really humid atmosphere here, and this layered structure of the earth and plaster walls is a very good, flexible system with the wood.

We’re not saying that after a big earthquake, a magnitude nine earthquake comes in, the building’s gonna right itself afterwards, but these buildings take a lot, a real beating, before they actually collapse.

One of the biggest things about an earthquake is that the people inside need to have a real, a fundamental clarity, about the severity of the event. Modern materials like steel and concrete in these events tend to fail quickly…

YG: Without warning?

JS: Right. So, they’re really strong, really strong, really strong, and then suddenly, BAM they fail. The tenant inside those buildings doesn’t have a really clear idea until it’s too late. Whereas with these wooden buildings, you see some of them going to as much as 45 degrees before they’re going to actually fail. So, somebody in the building is going to know this is serious business and get out. That’s the real big thing with earthquakes but also they’re fixable afterwards if damage isn’t too severe. Due to the way that the structural parts are visible, you can therefore get your hands on it and fix it pretty quickly.

KY: Ishibatate also addresses the termite problem. Termites need three things to survive; wood, darkness, humidity. By taking away any one thing you can avoid termites.

JS: We can’t get rid of wood because we’re making wooden buildings. We use as little shirata or sap wood as possible, which is what is easiest for termites to get started on and will draw them. In Ishibatate, the floor being elevated leaves enough space under the building for air and light or at least reflected light to travel from one end of the house to the other. Enough to make it inhospitable for termites.

Ishibatate style & your attraction to it

YG: Now that you’ve described the style, if you could talk a little bit about what you personally find appealing about it. Because it’s not mainstream today, so it must be difficult in some ways.

KY: Many people ask me that question and always I said, “Just for fun, I do it.” Making traditional structures with a traditional Japanese carpentry tools it’s so fun. Enjoyable. So simple.

JS: Yeah, for the love of it is Yama-san’s biggest. In Japan, there’s a lot of talk about Densho which means to pass on tradition. Yamamoto-san will share freely with people who have an innate passion for the traditional way of building but does not make a point to pass on tradition. Personally, I came all the way to Japan from America where I could have learned carpentry to some extent. The reason I came was because I was so impressed with the traditional architecture. In particular, the first time I came after college and saw things. When I saw the Minka, country homes. When I saw those buildings that had been standing for hundreds of years and the way they had aged so beautifully. The Japanese call it footprint basically. What remained spoke to the way people lived. 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago. I was just moved by that.

I definitely had seen things like that in the states, too. Particularly in the northeast when I was working on wooden boats, but for some reason I was really interested in the deep tradition here. Not only in temples and shrines, but homes, tea rooms. All these different building styles had these really, really long traditions. Whereas in the States, there are certain styles that were easy to see were very historic. Say bridges or barns or some things like that. Homes, temples, shrines those sorts of things. Maybe churches as well too. But in the States a lot of those styles seemed newer. The vast majority were newer and weren’t really holding the tradition as much. When I came to Japan, I wanted to know what that traditional style was. In Kyoto, I met one really interesting style or tradition that had to do with tea rooms. And, then when I met Yamamoto-san, he was doing the Minka traditional. He was really one of the first carpenters I’d ever met who was doing people’s homes traditionally. Because there’s not much money in people’s homes in Japan. Temples and shrines, tea houses, ryokan which are really upscale hotels basically or restaurants, they make money. You build it and it makes money for you. Particularly a really good quality building, inherently makes money. You attract customers or in the religious sense, it attracts believers. Whereas a home doesn’t make you any money. It just costs money. For maintenance afterwards as well. So homes inherently are not as profitable for the carpenter. And yet, Yamamoto specifically stopped doing temples and shrines. And, wanted to make homes for people. Really high quality work, which I thought was amazing and I’m glad I’m a part of it. And, that’s Ishibatate.

Your efforts to have Ishibatate recognized by UNESCO

YG: I was told about efforts you have been putting forth to have this style, Ishibatate, recognized by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Can you talk a little bit about that?

JS: Yeah. UNESCO has something called Intangible Cultural Heritage. We all know that UNESCO has cultural heritage sites that are tangible, like, the Pyramids. Intangible is something that an institution, government or country has really kept alive and going for a long time. We want to keep this tradition alive for humankind moving forward. And, it was the first time I’d ever heard of that sort of thing with UNESCO. I was really interested to find out that Korea’s wooden architecture became an Intangible Cultural Heritage in the ’80s.

The benefit of recognition is that it gives clout to an industry or tradition to go to their government and say, “We need to make this legally viable, moving forward. Could you give us some help economically so that this tradition doesn’t disappear?” The government will see it’s UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is not an easy thing to do. You have to get the voice of a lot of people in the country, so they recognize its important.

Long story short, in Japan that’s important now because traditional buildings are looking like they may be harder to build in the near future. There’s a lot of talk about, for energy’s sake, getting super insulated homes, etc. And, there’s this notion that these homes are not as energy efficient. Which I guess on a perfectly logical basis is true, but the people that are living in these traditional homes are living in a different way than people who are heating or air conditioning their entire space during the different seasons.

The other part is that tourism is a huge part of Japan’s economy and traditional buildings are the mainstay of tourism. We were pointing out to the government, while you’re trying to do a good thing by making more energy efficient buildings, you may be kicking yourself without knowing it. You might be disappointed later when traditional buildings can’t be built new or might be more difficult to fix up in the future.

YG: So, you’ve been writing to the government or putting documents together?

JS: We’re part of a group which includes architects, carpenters, engineers and people not specifically related to the architectural field. The first thing is to get UNESCO to recognize Japan’s wooden architecture and that which goes along with it earthen plaster, gardening, all the different parts of their traditional architecture as a UNESCO intangible heritage. That’s the step that we’re on right now. It’s been about three years now.

It started with getting voices together. Then talking to universities and professors to get them to understand the immediacy of this dilemma. Then to get regular folks all over Japan to sign petitions saying, “We think this is important. We’d be honored if this could be an intangible cultural heritage.” Getting tons of signatures. Getting the word out. Holding events where carpenters come and professors talk about why this is important; why it’s beautiful and why we’d like to keep it.

It’s been fun, too. You get to meet a lot of interesting folks who really know their craft. Not just carpenters, plasters and gardeners and all these different people associated with the craft. So, it’s been a joy as well as, a little bit of work.

YG: Wonderful. Thank you for doing that. Wishing you the best moving forward.

Your connection to tools

YG: Okay, can you talk a little bit about, I assume you have, a connection with tools?

KY: They are like our third arm. An extension of our body. Sometimes you can feel what’s going on with the tools as they are cutting. Practically there is no way to see what’s going on in the micro-world between wood and cutting edge but sometimes you can feel it.

YG: Yes, a deep and subtle connection.

JS: As far as my connection to tools is concerned. I guess my first real connection was more to the end product, but then as you build something that changes. When I first started working in Kyoto, even when I was working on boats in States, the tools were kind of magical. When you buy a new tool and use it there’s something magical. But when I started working in Kyoto, all my teacher’s tools the tools people had been using for years and years, there was something about that I could not get over. To the point that, at night, I would go open my teacher’s toolboxes to just look at their tools. Which, of course, was a faux pas. But, apprentices above me would say, “You want to know about how do you put a plane iron in a block? How to figure out details about chisels, planes and other tools?” Nobody is going to show you, so apprentices above me would say, “You just gotta be really sneaky and go pull them out. But, make sure when you put it back everything’s exactly where it was.” I would literally take pictures with my phone, pull out a toolbox and look at everything. Then look at my picture to make sure everything was perfectly back in place.

KY: Did you wipe your fingerprint? [laughing]

JS: Of course! So much to be careful of, for metal… you don’t want to touch a plane with oily fingers. I was just terrified. Sweating bullets looking at these things, but learning SO much! Especially after you start working with tools. At first, you’re just looking at it. It looks like a really beautiful ceramic pot, it’s aged and beautiful and amazing. But, as you start using a plane or you cut your own block, when you pull out this guy’s plane. You’re like, “Oh holy sh*t!’ He’s doing this or he’s doing that. He’s that specific about how he sets up this. Or, details about how he built his block. Or another block he laminated together a bunch of different pieces so it wouldn’t move. And, you actually don’t know because you can’t ask them. But, you get an idea.

It’s like taking apart a building. You don’t actually know, but as you get further along in your carpentry career you have really educated ideas about why the carpenter did this, that and the other thing. And, then sometimes you’re on the other end asking, “Why would you do that? That’s a terrible idea.” That sort of thing comes up as well.

Anyway, at that firm in Kyoto there were 30 people, so it was like having 29 magical boxes of toys to look at. And everyone’s got more than one toolbox, so it was super fun. I remember wanting my tools to have that look, like they had been used. In the beginning and oiling of them every day; taking really, really good care of them. And without thinking about it, I can look back and now they look like I wanted them to look then. I haven’t thought about it for 10 years.

They’re definitely magical. Tools are magical when they work right.

How have you been involved with Kezurou-kai in Japan?

YG: Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Kezurou-kai in Japan? I’ve seen pictures of you hewing and sawing.

KY: My involvement started almost 15 years ago at the Seki (a town in Gifu Prefecture Japan) Kezurou-kai. At the time I was working on temples and even though we hand planed a lot but no one other then me was really into it. I wanted to learn more. Kezurou-kai was really fun. I made a lot of friends. Also, I connected with guys who were re-learning about hewing and sawing for fun. After WWII, the use of axe, adze and o-biki (large resawing saw) for milling almost disappeared.

JS: After a few years of Yama-san studying and practicing with the ancient tools, I came along. Within the first 10 days when I started we went to the woods…

KY: [laughing] We still have video of that time.

JS: Yeah, we went to woods and were felling trees by hand. Then hewing them on site and pulling them out of the woods. We brought some of those home.

Then because we’re maniacs, we kept doing the hewing. It started to become apparent that the hewing was maybe something we should do at Kezurou-kai. Thanks to someone named Araki-san, who was going all over Japan hewing at small Kezurou-kais, it became of interest. At the Kobe event we were asked to do a big presentation. They brought us these gnarly timbers and asked us to make it into a roof system. We hewed it so everyone could see the process at the event. Yama-san laid it all out and we joined all the timbers in a day and a half. It was so immediate! There was so much enthusiasm!

There were also some huge timbers. We had everyone that brought axes…went through and hewed them together. Then suddenly it wasn’t just Kezurou-kai, but we had a hewing group. We’d get together a hundred people in Kobe just to hew. That became a mini Hatsurou-kai. People were going there not just to plane, but some only going to hew with adze and axes. So now there’s both in Japan.

And, of course, at all the Kezurou-kai events there is also hewing now. But it’s just in the last five or six years that it’s become a big thing. It’s great because now people are realizing how much fun it is. Yeah, so recently that’s been our thing. We’re really interested in planing, too. But, when we go, we’re usually too busy hewing to be planing.

YG: I can understand that, it is my favorite. I let everybody else plane and I judge the planing competition, but the rest of the time I have axe and adze out.

JS: There’s something about those tools. Man, it’s just such a beautiful connection. And, we’ve been blessed because now we get asked to do hewing for people’s homes.

Dream project?, hopes moving forward?

Ishibatate BuildingYG: What would be your dream project? Hopes moving forward?

KY: We’d love to start a carpentry school.

JS: Yeah, the school while still doing projects. It’s a lot of fun to see people learning. Another dream is helping this temple in Kentucky where I used to live. I want to be able to build something for them to give back to that community.